Number in debt to energy firms rises, says Ofgem

Gas ring Image copyright PA
Image caption More gas customers were in debt than in 2012, the figures show

About 6% of domestic energy customers were in debt to their supplier in 2013, figures show, but energy firms still owe money to customers too.

Newly published figures from regulator Ofgem showed that 1.5 million electricity accounts and 1.4 million gas accounts in Britain were in debt.

This was a slight rise on 2012, but the amount owed was unchanged.

The figures come shortly after the industry opened a new scheme aiming to return credit to customers.

In February, Ofgem revealed that the suppliers held at least £202m from 3.5 million former domestic customers whose accounts had been closed but who had made payments for unused gas and electricity.

It has also reported that the number of free gas safety checks by suppliers for customers who are elderly or have long-term health problems has fallen from 40,000 in 2009 to 17,000 in 2013.

Customers in debt

The regulator said that suppliers should do all they could to support customers struggling to pay.

Customers in debt typically owed £323 on gas bills, and £306 on electricity bills.

The number of people repaying debt rose in England, but fell in Scotland and Wales.

Joanna Elson, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, said that nearly one in five callers to its National Debtline advice line had energy bill debts.

"This is part of a dramatic shift in the type of debt problems we are seeing in the UK, with fewer people falling behind with traditional credit products and more and more struggling to repay household bills," she said.

"If you fall behind with your energy bills, it is important to stay in contact with your supplier, who have a duty to support customers who are struggling to pay. You can also seek free advice from a debt charity such as National Debtline."

Earlier in the month, the big six suppliers who owe money to customers who may have moved home launched a nationwide campaign aiming to hand back overpayments averaging £50 on closed accounts.

Meanwhile, the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee has opened an investigation into price comparison websites.

MPs said that the way these websites operated, when householders were looking to switch suppliers, had been a source of concern in recent months.

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